By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 13, 2010……….A supporter of Gov.-elect Rick Scott who is so on the outs with legislative leaders that speculation has mounted she might end up in his administration may hold the key to the future of a high speed rail connecting Tampa and Orlando.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has been rewarded for her brief anti-Tallahassee gubernatorial run with diminished power in the Florida Senate, said on a statewide political show this weekend that it is up to her and other rail supporters to convince Scott to get on board with the long-sought train that the federal government has basically committed to paying for.
“I think we have an obligation to prove to him that this is not going to be a drain on taxpayers, that it is going to create jobs, that private industry is going to assume the risk, that there’s not going to be subsidies and ongoing maintenance,” Dockery said Sunday on the Political Connections show on Bay News 9 in Tampa. “This will not be a drain on the state nor will it be a public transportation system. It’s going to be a true public-private partnership.”
Few rail supporters may have the inside track with Scott as much as Dockery. She endorsed Scott shortly after she ended her own bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and was considered a possible contender to be his running mate. Dockery’s name has since come up most frequently as a possible transportation secretary.
Dockery opposed the SunRail commuter train in Orlando, but she has vocally supported the long-sought bullet train along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa, which was largely the brainchild of her husband, C.C. Dockery. The Lakeland businessman, once chairman of the disbanded Florida High Speed Rail Authority, pushed for the train in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Dockery said she would consider agreeing to run the transportation department, or the Department of Environmental Protection if Scott offered.
“I would consider it,” she said. “All options are on the table…but that’s certainly not something I’m working on.”
Dockery, who was one of the few ruling Republicans not awarded a committee chairmanship for next year, was quick to note the similarities between her abbreviated campaign themes and Scott’s victorious bid, which could come in handy when the time comes to bend the governor-elect’s ear about the rail project.
“Independence in the political process is not often rewarded,” she said. “I have been known over the past several years to speak my mind very freely. During my brief run for governor, I was very critical of the way things were done in Tallahassee…and I don’t think that message went over very well. Ironically, that was also the message of Rick Scott, who is our governor-elect, but there is not much that can happen to him to as governor-elect.”
Turning Scott around on the high speed rail project may not be easy. Florida only received the latest award for the train, $342 million, because newly-elected Republican governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio said after the November elections that they did not want to build rail projects in their states. Scott has signaled he is not sure he does either.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood notified those states that the rail money did not have to be used, but it could not be re-allocated to other areas in the cash-strapped states’ budgets, even transportation projects like roads and highways. Presumably, the same rules would apply to Florida.
Rail supporters took some hope because Scott was not as definitive as his counterparts in Wisconsin and Ohio, but he did not exactly jump at the federal windfall, despite the fact that it brought the state’s haul close to the full $2.6 billion cost.
“I’m pleased that the federal government recognizes that sound infrastructure is key to Florida’s economic growth,” Scott said when the award was announced. “I look forward to reviewing the feasibility of this project in terms of return to Florida’s taxpayers. I’m also interested in understanding the private sector’s interest in funding this infrastructure project.”
Perhaps recognizing the sales job ahead, the DOT’s reaction to the award was also noticeably muted considering it was the third rail outlay won by Florida in about two years.
“The receipt of these funds brings the total amount of federal commitment consistent with what we had requested in our application to USDOT in August 2010,” DOT spokesman Dick Kane said in an E-mail. “We continue to develop the project documents and continue our coordination with all appropriate parties.”
Scott has been urged to accept the rail money by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, and outgoing U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who said last week the train should be built since the federal government was footing the bill.
However, some of Scott’s biggest campaign supporters from the political tea party movement have called on him to put the brakes on the train once and for all – federal funding notwithstanding.